Band: Dead Neanderthals
Album: Womb of God (2017)
Genre: experimental, jazz
Where to buy: Bandcamp
On the Facebook page for Dead Neanderthals, the About description reads, “A brick in the face!” Their Bandcamp page lists them as the new wave of Dutch heavy jazz. Both descriptions work. The Dutch band eschews labels, finding freedom in the middle of a large Venn diagram with circles for jazz, noise, metal, grindcore, punk, industrial, and experimental minimalism. The two songs on Womb of God defy expectations, inviting listeners to surrender to the strange combination of melody-less saxophone and hard-hitting drums. There are no vocals here, only weird constructs and a musical conversation in a language we have little access to but enjoy hearing anyway. In only thirty-five minutes, Dead Neanderthals surprises like few groups can.
In just 2017, Dead Neanderthals has released four albums. The duo is prolific. Drummer René Aquarius and saxophonist Otto Kokke produced their first collaboration over email in 2010, eventually joining up in real life to rehearse and play live. Their discography illustrates their comfort with extremely structured music (2012’s Jazzhammer), fully improvised music (2013’s Polaris), and live albums (2016’s Live at Roadburn). Womb of God drops this Friday, and has already sold out of its first vinyl pressing, owing to the band’s talent and their dedicated fan base – certainly one of the benefits of operating in a microgenre.
So what is the music like? The first track, “Womb of God I,” opens with a slight ringing and bassy drum hits with long pauses in between. An electronic squeal emerges on top of these two voices but is then relegated to the background as Aquarius lays down the first full musical layer. With the bass thumping constantly underneath, he stays on his cymbals as Kokke enters with a single sustained note. Its length builds up expectations which are first met not by the horn but by the drums, as Aquarius is allowed the first real variation on this nearly ambient theme. He plays with the cymbals and adds subdivisions where previously there were none, and right behind him the horn keeps blowing. Only now, it is wavering in intensity, squalling with that distortion that only woodwinds can approximate. Suddenly, a drum fill reminds you that you are listening to humans, not alien visitors trying to communicate. A second sax joins the mix, and I should admit here that I am not sure which sax part is performed by Kokke and which by the band’s guest, Colin Webster, but in at least one sense it hardly matters, as both are absolutely indispensable to the final musical calculus. The horns blow and blow, the distortion swelling and contracting, on top of the drums, which fill the air with the burst of pressed metal. And underneath it all, that constant bass drum pulses unbroken and steadily. The track is over 19 minutes long but does not suffer for it. This song and the next, Womb of God II (over 15 minutes in length), are very much like free jazz, but there is enough noise and metal influence here to push Dead Neanderthals across the aforementioned genre boundaries.
But maybe the most impressive thing about Womb of God is its demonstration that so much can be accomplished with so few voices. Heavy music often gets described with the phrase “wall of sound,” but managing the same with two instrumental voices is a nifty trick, and one that Dead Neanderthals is primed to pull off. What’s really great is how an album that earns the “wall of sound” descriptor also manages to inhabit a realm of minimalism so easily. The music here is painted with few brush strokes and even fewer colors, but it is in no way incomplete or lacking. The music is not harmed by the absence of lyrics, guitars and bass, song structures that could be construed in any way as traditional, or fulfilled expectation. The music is, in fact, elevated by its economy. In this, Womb of God reminds me of the great Japanese minimalist percussionist, Midori Takada (and if you haven’t heard Through the Looking Glass yet, you really should). It is in its own way streamlined and teleological, thoroughly unpredictable and astonishing.